The first time I heard the term European furniture I had visions of Old World craftsmen painstakingly making heirlooms I could pass on to my children. In reality, the examples I saw weren’t very well built, but I was impressed by their design, especially the modular construction – using similar size components to make different pieces.
With the benefits of modular construction in mind, I designed this bookcase and end table, which even a beginning woodworker can build. The pieces use the same stock and joinery, so you can complete both in about the same time it takes to make just one.
All of the materials can be found at a home center. If you already have a basic shop setup (table saw, router, drill/driver, etc.), the only additional tools you’ll need are a self-centering dowel jig and a 35mm Forstner bit.
The following steps describe how to build the end table because the doors add a little more complexity. Any additional steps specific to the bookcase are addressed in “Build the Bookcase,” below.
Mill the legs and rails
The legs and rails for the end table and bookcase are made from 1x poplar that is face glued to create 1-1/2-in.-thick stock. Cut 1x4 poplar into four 28-in.-long pieces for the end table legs, and cut the 1x6 into six 35-in.-long pieces for the end table rails. Face glue the pieces in pairs (photo 1).
Most home shops will not have enough clamps to glue all of the pieces at one time. Plan to glue these parts in smaller groups over several days.
When the glue has cured, rip the 1x4 leg stock to 1-1/2 in. wide and the 1x6 rail stock to 2 in. wide; then rip the thickness to 1-1/4 in. Cut the legs and rails to final length. Each 35-in. rail blank will yield one side rail and one front or back rail.
Using a self-centering dowel jig, drill 1/4-in.-dia. x 1-1/8-in.-deep dowel holes at all of the leg/rail connections. Center the dowels on the rails, and offset the dowel positions on the legs to keep the rails and posts flush on the inside of the case (photo 2).
Place a 1/4-in.-thick spacer between the jig and the inside face of the leg to offset the dowel locations on the legs.
Make the top and shelves
I used 3/4-in. birch plywood for the top and shelves. The top shelf and bottom shelf are notched to fit around the legs (see drawing in the PDF below).
Heat-activated wood edge banding conceals the edges that will be exposed, including all four edges of the top and the outside edges of the top shelf. Cut the banding 2 in. longer than the edge to be covered. Apply the banding with a household iron (photo 3). After the edge banding has cooled, trim the excess with a sharp chisel. (You can purchase a special trimmer designed for this purpose.) Lightly sand to ease any sharp edges.
Press the edge banding down along each edge of the top and shelves, using an iron set on low heat. To ensure a good bond, follow the iron with a small roller while the edging is still warm.
A veneered plywood top is easy to make, but it has drawbacks. The texture of the plywood core can telegraph through the surface veneer, especially if you apply a glossy finish. In addition, the veneer is very thin, making future repairs virtually impossible.
If you want to enhance the strength and appearance of the top, make it out of solid wood. Lumberyards may carry some varieties of preglued panel stock, but you will most likely have to edge glue your own panel. You must attach any solid top with tabletop fasteners or corner blocks with slotted screw holes. Both are designed to allow the wood to expand and contract as humidity changes.
Assemble the case
Whether you’re building the end table or the bookcase, the case-assembly technique is the same: Start with the sides and build inward.
Apply glue to the dowels and assemble the sides, making sure they are square (photo 4). After the glue has cured, rout the 3/8-in.-wide x 3/4-in.-deep rabbets for the side panels using a 3/8-in.-dia. bearing-guided rabbeting bit (photo 5).
Glue and clamp the legs and side rails. Measure diagonally across the frame in both directions. If the measurements are identical, the frame is square.
Position the frame on the workbench with the inside face up. Cut the 3/8 x 3/4-in. rabbet in multiple passes for cleaner results.
Cut the side panels to size, and trim the corners to fit inside the 3/8-in.-radius corners of the rabbets. Apply glue in the rabbets and fasten the side panels with 1-1/4-in. brad nails. Solid panels must be able to expand and contract, but you can glue plywood panels in place. In fact, gluing provides reinforcement and prevents future racking.
Next, connect the two side assemblies. Working with the case on its side, first glue the front and back rails into one side. Then fit the top shelf in position and secure the other side assembly to the rails. The top shelf must be installed at this stage because it will not fit into place later.
Clamp the case parts together and then place the assembly upright on a flat surface. Adjust the clamps as necessary to square the case. Glue and fasten the back panel ledgers and back panel while the case-frame assembly is still clamped (photo 6).
Connect the two side frames and remaining rails with the top shelf in place. Glue and fasten the back panel with 1-1/4-in. finish nails while the case is still clamped to keep it square.
Fasten the ledgers to the rails with 1-1/4-in. screws, and attach the bottom to the bottom ledgers with 1-1/4-in. screws. Do not attach the top until after you’ve applied the finish.
Make and hang the doors
Measure the opening and cut the door stiles and rails to fit. Like the side panels, the door panels fit into a rabbet.
Assemble the door stiles and rails with dowels, making sure the frames are square. After the glue has cured, rout a 3/8-in.-wide x 1/4-in.-deep rabbet around the inside edge of each door frame. Glue and fasten the panels in the rabbets with 5/8-in. brad nails.
I used flush-hanging cup hinges (Euro style) to hang the door. These hinges are easy to adjust and remove. Use a 35mm bit and drill press to bore the hinge cup mortises in the doors (photo 7). Screw the hinges to the door, and attach the mounting clips to the cabinet. Snap the doors into place and center them using the built-in hinge-adjustment screws (photo 8).
Drill a 35mm (or 1 3/8-in.-dia.) mortise for the cup hinges. Clamp a fence to position the center of the bit at the specified distance from the edge of the door. Mark a bit centerline on the top of the fence and a hole centerline on the door.
Fasten the hinge to the door and the mounting bracket to the cabinet (inset photo). Slide the hinge arm onto the mounting bracket, and center the door in the cabinet opening using the adjustment screws.
Center and fasten the doorstop to the bottom of the top shelf with 1-1/4-in. screws. Drill 3/16-in.-dia. holes at each doorknob location.
Finish the parts
You can use paint or stain and polyurethane to finish the table. I decided to leave the top natural and paint the case and shelves.
Sand the top with increasingly finer grades of sandpaper (ending with 220-grit). I applied a first coat of oil-base polyurethane diluted 50/50 with mineral spirits. After the first coat dried, I lightly sanded with 320-grit paper. Then I applied two additional coats of undiluted polyurethane, sanding lightly between coats.
The quality of the paint job can make or break a furniture project. I chose water-base enamel designed for furniture, but you can use oil or latex interior trim paint instead. To achieve the best finish, follow these tips:
- Hold a light at a low angle to look for major scratches or dents. Fill deep blemishes with wood putty, and sand the entire piece with 150-grit sandpaper. The paint will cover any swirl marks.
- Apply primer to block stains and seal the wood so it will evenly receive a topcoat. If you are using a dark-color paint, ask the paint supplier to tint the primer for easier coverage.
- When using latex paint, mix it with Flood Floetrol, an additive that makes the paint less “ropey” and flow more like oil-base enamel.
- Brush the corners and seams first and then use a 1/4-nap or foam roller to cover the large areas. Start with the inside faces and move to the outside, covering one side entirely before moving on to the next.
- Give your project an extra day to dry before attaching the top and placing it on carpet. Even when latex paint appears to be dry, it may still be sticky. (You can probably guess how I learned this.)
BUILD THE BOOKCASE
The following additional steps are necessary to build the bookcase:
- Taper the bottom 4-1/2 in. of the inside face of each leg. You can use a tapering jig and table saw, but because the leg posts are so long, I found it easier to cut with a jigsaw following a straightedge.
- Drill shelf-pin holes in the sides using a scrap of 1/4-in. perforated hardboard as a template. Attach a stop or a piece of tape to the drill bit to mark the drilling depth and prevent drilling through the sides.
- Make adjustable shelves by attaching solid-wood edging to the front of each shelf board with glue and 1-1/2-in. finish nails. Finish the shelves to match the bookcase.